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Keeping pace with the fastest moving goods

Tim Macer reports on the new generation of software that puts retail tracking on a Windows screen

For a horrible moment a few years ago, it looked as if the big retailers in this country were each seeking exclusive distribution deals with the big information providers such as Neilsen and InfoScan. For fmcg manufacturers, it looked like the beginning of the cold war. Now it looks as if the crisis has been averted - the quantity of data available from different sources is staggering. As Jenny Williams, UK Business Information Manager at Lever Brothers put it: "it's data management which is the issue now, and how to get your ounce of gold out of the vast stream of data which is flowing past you". Jenny's department are trialling a new system that aims to do just this. Called Dataserver Partners, it is a data mining tool available from IRI Software, the computing arm of IRI Infoscan, and developed by IRI in conjunction with Oracle.

Partners is capable of sifting through vast amounts of data that may be held in various databases, and presenting this in a standard summarised form, even though the data may be from different sources and in different formats. It is possible to use the package without one scap of data from InfoScan, although this would seem churlish, since they have so many databases which are ready to run. It works equally well with in-house data or data from other sources, though coding it up may take a while.

Jenny Williams sees Partners as "a sophisticated exception reporting system. It shows you how something is performing better or worse than expected. You can often see something has moved up by two points: with this you can see exactly what has caused the improvement and what effect any further change might have on the category as a whole or on individual brands within the category".

Partners deals exclusively with the retail data concepts of markets, categories and brands, and also "geography", in the narrowest sense, meaning the type of store, not the part of the country. What makes Partners a market research tool as well as a brand management tool is its ability to link store data with more conventional socio-demographic data (the "other" kind of geography) from different sources. The optional Dataserver Targetter module addresses this area in a serious way.

There are a number of aspects to both Partners and Targetter which make them remarkable products. For a start, the interface is presented in a Windows Explorer type shell, which seems to be the darling of software developers at present. Double click any item and you get an overview of what you are about to select and a preview of how it will look - report, chart and so on. On-screen guidance and descriptions of the reports available are set up as hypertext, with hotspots and cross-references, hints and even a "next step" button, which suggests other related reports you might like to see. It makes gathering the information rather like navigating through the worldwide web. A "drill-down" method is used: you can start looking at a market, then narrow this down to category (a group of similar products which are in competition), product, item or even individual bar-code (e.g. one particular pack with a special offer flash); if you have obtained access to your data at store level, your report will inform you about performance in individual stores as well as just by retailer.

There is the rub, at the moment. As Sandra Ridley, Director of Quality Services put it when I visited IRI Infoscan in Bracknell, "the software has running successfully in the USA for a couple of years now, where it has revolutionised people's use of this kind of data, but release rules in the UK have meant substantial changes, as some sources will only allow access to their data at an aggregate level."

This is a particular problem in Britain, where a handful of retailers dominate the market, making each very reticent about its data. Finding out how things are selling in the Co-op and Somerfield does not shed much light on how it is doing in, say, "Tesbury's". But as Jenny Williams points out, with the current moves towards formal category management agreements between producers and retailers, it is of mutual benefit to have this information available, so that retailers can be fully aware of the effect any changes will make on the category as a whole. She does detect a shift in attitudes, and believes that common sense is about to prevail among the big players.

Category management is an area Partners sets out to address in a highly intelligent and sophisticated way. It will automatically identify and select all the competitors of a product in the category. Then, from recent sales data, it will quantify the extra sales generated by promotional activities both for your product and the category as a whole. The fact is that "increased support" as it is called, stimulates not just the product being promoted, but its competitors in the sector too. From this, you can enter the realm of "what if" calculations, by increasing any of these activities and seeing the effect on both product and category. Click the button on screen and you have a very clear, concise chart with a single sentence summary, automatically generated by the software. "It makes for a compelling argument in your negotiations with your retailers in the sort of support they should be giving to your product and promotions", Sandra Ridley at IRI told me. "It is the sort of thing that product managers get really excited about. And the retailer isn't going to mind if you can show that his volumes will actually increase across the whole category by continuing or increasing support".

This is a complex software product, aimed at a very specialised field, pioneering a number of new techniques. It has been tackled intelligently by IRI, and deserves to succeed. It offers the hope that, instead of drowning in a flood of data, we can start fishing, and actually catch something tasty.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, November 1996, Issue number 366.

© Copyright Market Research Society/Tim Macer 1997. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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